Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Star Trek: The Original Series is fondly remembered in large part because of the social and political allegory it dabbled in. It was rarely subtle or delivered with finesse, but in the context of time it was made in, it can be appreciated for being pretty progressive and thought-provoking. It’s therefore poetically appropriate and satisfying that the final adventure of its crew be structured around a less-than-subtle political allegory. The Undiscovered Country, the sixth and last of the TOS franchise is not very sly with the historical influences that color its plot, but it’s a memorable, smart, and fun film that concludes one of the most memorable and smart science fiction franchises in history.
It’s a small wonder that the movie even exists, considering the abysmally embarrassing (but stupidly enjoyable) Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. From a studio perspective, ponying up more money to do a follow up to that with an aging cast and waning cultural cache seems ill-advised, to say the least. But the stars aligned, not just because Undiscovered was greenlit, but because the story and its themes came together in what is a nearly perfect finale to the film series. Among its many strengths is that it’s a very meta film that acknowledges the above factors it had going against it in its story. The age of its cast is spotlighted often, and the behind-the-times theme is woven into Kirk’s attitude and approach on his last mission to broker peace with the long-time foes of the Klingon Empire. The film’s intelligence and self-awareness serve it very well, as does its sense of humor. The Voyage Home gets credit for being the genuinely funniest Trek film, but The Undiscovered Country, despite having a serious and weighty plot, gives it a run for its money in regards to humor.
Nicholas Meyer, who directed the stellar Wrath of Khan, lends his talents to The Undiscovered Country. As compared to The Motion Picture, one of the defining characteristics of Wrath was its decidedly more militaristic edge and Horatio Hornblower influences. Unlike the meandering and plodding Motion Picture, Wrath had a propulsive and triumphant look and feel that made it a hit. Similarly, he brings the same harder-edged military mindset and focus to Undiscovered‘s story, rescuing the franchise from its previous installment.
What I love about the plot is its heavy emphasis on interstellar politics in the 23rd century; Star Trek has never felt like a more realistic, political place than it does here. It immediately lends it a weightier and more adult energy, and fits right alongside the likes of Hunt For Red October and other Tom Clancy political thrillers. Its story features industrial catastrophe, the end of a long-standing cold war, political assassinations, backdoor meetings with presidents and ambassadors, secret agents, collusion and conspiracy, a peace conference, a televised political trial, a climactic cat-and-mouse battle between warring vessels, etc. Strip away the fantastical, alien elements and this could as easily have been an Alec Baldwin feature film in the early 90’s (or a John Krasinski season-long epic now). It’s still Star Trek though, and it has many of the familiar beats and themes you’d expect in any of its best outings.
The plot, as mentioned, is not subtle. But subtlety can be overrated and the film is unashamed of its real-world references. After its foreboding opening credits (Cliff Eidelman’s score is incredible throughout) end with a massive explosion, we get to see Captain Sulu (a nice payoff from Star Trek III) of the Excelsior poking along. They are suddenly met with the aforementioned explosion, which turns out to be a Klingon moon Praxis, their key energy source. Turns out all that over-mining and zero safety precautions caught up with them, and now they’re fucked. The catastrophe forces the Klingon Empire to give up its costly war with the Federation.
The Chernobyl disaster took place only six years before this film came out, so it’s an interesting and daring approach to use the event as a springboard for the plot. One of the film’s themes is that of the unknown future – the “undiscovered country,” as quoted from Hamlet by the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon. History can be made by great people making great decisions, but it can also be guided by accidents, mishaps, and quirks of fate. The explosion of a single moon (or a nuclear plant meltdown) can bring an entire empire to its knees and change the course of history.
At his father’s suggestion, Spock opens up talks with Gorkon (played with stately dignity by David Warner) and peace talks are arranged. Spock volunteers a dismayed Kirk to escort the Klingon leader to Earth, operating under the bulletproof logic that “only Nixon could go to China.” It’s great.
One of the biggest risks the film takes is depicting the bigotry and racism of Starfleet officers, including Kirk. Objecting to what Spock has signed him up for, Kirk refers to the Klingons as animals. It’s not great. It is, however, a realistic detail given that the two powers are such diametric opposites of one another and have been in conflict for so long. Similarly, other Starfleet characters from top to bottom are less than woke, like Admiral Cartwright and a couple of low-ranking yeomen. In the non-theatrical cut of the movie there’s also a scene with some choice comments about Klingons (and Gorkon’s daughter) by Scotty. It definitely pops the bubble of future humanity’s enlightenment, but it does illustrate the difficulties of peace in the face of such deep-seated animosity (similarly, there is a backroom scene of the Klingons pushing for war, showing the old school mindset of these cold warriors). It also uses the age of the actors in service of the story, since they seem like the kind of older folks that might say those kinds of shitty things in private. #sorrynotsorry
Kirk outright states in his log that he can’t trust Klingons because of the death of his son. It’s actually the first, strongest negative opinion Kirk has ever given about the Klingons. They’ve been enemies for the entire Original Series and movies, but Kirk hating the Klingons hasn’t been hit like it is here. It’s a bold move, and the rest of the film goes on to show that Kirk is older and less flexible in his attitudes, but he’s not beyond redemption. Others, however…
We meet Spock’s latest protege Valeris (a cool but spunky Kim Cattrall), who was initially intended to be Saavik (from Star Trek II, III, and IV) but had to be turned into a new character for reasons. Cattrall is great in the role and I don’t personally think the film loses anything by not having her be Saavik. I think her youth and lack of personal baggage with Spock works better in the character’s (and story’s) favor.
The Enterprise rendezvous with Gorkon’s ship and an awkward banquet dinner ensues (I love the Klingons being perplexed by the napkins and silverware, looking at the humans to see what to do with them). Chekov makes what he thinks is a charitable statement about all species deserving human rights. Gorkon’s daughter points it out as a racist statement. Kirk groans internally. Chang unknowingly(?) quotes Hitler. It’s one of the most overtly political scenes Trek has ever done. Again, it deflates the idealism of the Federation slightly by imparting some realism. The Federation is not quite the “homo sapiens-only club” that Azetbur accuses it of being, but all the prominent positions in Stafleet command are coincidentally held by humans. Funny how that happens.
The fears and grievances of both sides are laid bare and any understanding between the peoples seems like a distant possibility. As Gorkon, David Warner commands the scene and seems like a different kind of Klingon than any we’ve seen. In his brief departing scene with Kirk, he recognizes the difficulties in how their generation will grapple with trusting one another. James T. seems almost too ashamed to meet his gaze.
But then even more hilarity ensues. By which I mean political assassinations!
Gorkon’s ship gets torpedoed seemingly by the Enterprise, the ship loses gravity (nice to see that feature film budget for this sequence), and two mysterious Starfleet officers beam aboard and start shooting everybody. The savagery of the act is depicted graphically, and we get lots of blood and dismemberment. Gorkon ends up mortally wounded, and his final words to Kirk are hauntingly noble: “Don’t let it end this way.” He’s one of the most interesting and thoughtful characters in all of Trek, and his time in the movie is all too brief. It’s a little disappointing that we don’t get to learn any more about him. Who was this guy? What was his background? How did he rise to leadership of a race of warriors? There’s definitely a story there. Ah, well.
There’s something contrived about Kirk and McCoy being arrested for his death. Like, you can’t just arrest these two because they’re the only humans within reach and charge them for this crime with no evidence? Anyway, Kirk and Bones get arrested and are sentenced for the crime with no evidence. It is a highly entertaining courtroom scene though, perfectly staged (I love that it’s televised) and acted by Plummer (and Michael Dorn as Worf’s grandpa!). Chang’s “Don’t wait for the translation” line is of course a reference to Adlai Stevenson’s famous quip during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It doesn’t have much to do with anything, but it’s a fun political easter egg for this very political film.
The dual storylines of Kirk/McCoy surviving in Klingon prison and Spock/Valeris searching the Enterprise for evidence are both fun and fill out the middle act of the film nicely. It’s cool to have Spock taking charge of this ship and seeing his logical gears grinding through the vagaries of the problem at hand. And the Enterprise really feels like a lived-in, military vessel.
Kirk’s misadventures at Rura Penthe are mostly humorous (especially the brawl he inadvertently wins due to a quirk of alien anatomy). But a key scene is his bunk talk with Bones, where he acknowledges his own prejudice and how his fear of peace was a big motivator of it. Up to this point (and to his credit), Kirk has gone along with all the peace overtures, (though very grumbily) and even sacrificed his freedom to uphold it. But he’s a very prejudiced and even hateful man where the Klingons are concerned. He begins the movie by imploring Spock to let the Klingons die, which is shocking. But what sets him apart from the architects of the conspiracy is the humanity he still has left, as well as his humility at facing his warts. He admits that it never even occurred to him to trust Gorkon’s motives, and he has seen the dark path that kind of racial mistrust leads to. Using the character/actor’s age in service of the story’s themes is a great decision; it’s a film about old men starring old men wondering if they’re too old to change or make a difference anymore.
A suspiciously helpful shape-shifting alien babe helps Kirk and McCoy escape prison, only for it to be a trap to get rid of the two. Fortunately, Spock is there to beam them up and they soon discover the bodies of Gorkon’s assassins. Shortly thereafter the true saboteur is revealed. I guess it’s not a huge shock (by Law of New Character), but Cattrall’s enthusiastic performance up until here as one of the good people does make it an interesting twist. And like Spock, who admits later that he was prejudiced to trust her because of her accomplishments as a Vulcan, we too as the audience have been trained to see Vulcans as the good guys. I love how absolutely pissed Nimoy plays Spock in the scene. He’s still the emotionally subdued Spock we all know and love, but he’s still positively boiling with rage over her betrayal.
What happens next is unsettling – Spock mentally probes Valeris’ mind for the identities of her co-conspirators. To be fair, the scene portrays the mind meld as the disturbing enhanced interrogation it is (albeit successful in actually getting usable information). There a hypnotic quality to how it’s shot and times slows to a crawl as the camera slowly spirals around Spock and Valeris. As Spock continues to probe her mind for information it doesn’t have, she even screams in pain/horror, and… yeah. It’s something, all right.
BUT, moving on: we get one last good Kirk and Spock scene. I like that it mirrors a similar scene in the beginning of Wrath of Khan, where Spock is meditating in his quarters. And it’s a good bookend to their scene together at the beginning of the film. The emotional tenor is completely different this time around, and they’ve both learned a lot – for better and for worse. Even for a Vulcan, it’s possible to allow your prejudices to color your vision.
After that low key scene it’s off to the fireworks factory! It’s a thrilling and exciting climax as the Enterprise closes in on the peace conference at Khitomer, knowing that a prototype Klingon Bird of Prey that can fire while cloaked is waiting for them. I like the sweaty anxiety of the crew as they approach the planet, counting down until they’re in transporter range. And sure enough…
Plummer is of course great as Chang. For my money, he’s the best Trek movie villain, hands-down. As much as we love our villains to be multi-faceted and with morals in shades of grey, Chang is really none of that when you get down to it. He’s a one-eyed mustache-twirling ne’er-do-well that bombastically monologues Shakespeare as he pummels the Enterprise. And god, it’s just the coolest fucking shit ever. Throughout the film, Plummer shades his performance with a litany of subdued emotions, but ultimately Chang is just acting, and he’s just as good a thespian as Plummer. It’s therefore thematically appropriate that he’s obsessed with Shakespeare, the king of drama. The conspiracy that members of Starfleet and the Klingon Empire have planned is a grand show and Chang is full of sound and fury as he plays his part for the final act. It would have been nice to get a bit more depth to his character. His final demise is the one part of the movie that he is truly sincere in as he stoically accepts his fate, but the rest is all bullshitting in service of The Plan – the dinner, his feigned betrayal after being attacked, the trial. It’s all an act, and the character’s hamminess helps sell the delusion to all concerned. Still, the fact that Plummer is able to take what is essentially a two-dimensional character and convey the idea of great depth and complexity is a remarkable achievement and a sight to behold.
It’s also the best space battle of Trek, in my opinion. The visuals and dynamics of the battle are great, but the stakes at play (both emotional and historical) are what make it a compelling and nail-biting climax. They’re literally fighting for peace, which is what Star Trek has always been about, metaphorically. The cross-cutting between the conference and the battle ratchets up the tension, and the score is exceptional. Spock and McCoy collaborating to put together a special torpedo to track Chang’e ship is the absolute best way to cap off their historically contentious relationship. It’s been observed often how the trio of Kirk-Spock-McCoy represents a psychological/philosophical allegory of the mind/soul. If so, then their cooperation here symbolizes the wisdom and harmony that comes with accepting all the facets of oneself at the end of a long life. Emotion and reason working together instead of against. It’s really kind of beautiful.
After Chang is dealt with, the crew beams down to stop the dastardly sniper from killing the Federation president (Scotty deals the final blow, which is cool). Things get wrapped up incredibly quickly from there and we even get a big slow clap from everyone in the room. It’s a little bit ridiculous (do literally any of these people know what is going on vis a vis the conspiracy?), but it aches with the sincerity and goodness we love about Star Trek. Kirk and Gorkon’s daughter reach a mutual emotional understanding about their personal losses, and it demonstrates how alike we all are under our outwardly different surfaces.
Back on the bridge of the Enterprise, Kirk thanks and bids adieu to his comrade Sulu, who flies off to his own adventures. Bad news comes as Starfleet orders the Enterprise back to Spacedock to get decommissioned. At the urging of Spock, Kirk says “fuck it” one last time and heads out for a final pleasure cruise. The bridge is emptied of all personnel but the main cast for the shot (I love the empty seat for Sulu). Kirk’s final log entry thematically connects The Original Series to The Next Generation (and ultimately, all the subsequent Trek series) nicely, particularly in the final change of “no man” to “no one” in the famous franchise tagline.
The “end of history” was an idea popularized in the early 90’s when this film was made, referring to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War between the two nations. It seems like a quaint notion in the year of our lord (Satan, apparently) 2021, in which every week is worth a textbook of political history. As Kirk tells Azetbur, “we haven’t run out of history yet.” And indeed stuff has continued to happen so much.
The Next Generation took place many decades after The Original Series and depicted the Klingons as no longer being enemies. It wasn’t until this movie that the history of how that happened was filled in. The film is concerned with history and its characters are very aware of it taking place around them. Some of them accept it and their place in it, while others labor in deceitful and ultimately futile efforts to delay history and progress from being made. The undiscovered country of the future is a frightening prospect to those small-minded individuals who would rather cling to the past.
Star Trek has famously been a franchise about going to new and unknown places, and featured brave characters unafraid to visit them. The Undiscovered Country takes an unflinching last look at these characters and shows us that there will always be new places to go, not just in space but in our own perceptions and expectations of our fellow beings. None of us can stop getting older, but as long as we keep out hearts and minds open to new possibilities, the undiscovered country won’t be such a scary place. And maybe we can continue making it a better one for as long as we’re around.
- The director’s cut of the film contains several extra scenes that weren’t in the theatrical release. I grew up with the VHS copy that had these scenes, and that’s always been the “real” version of the movie to me. The below video lays out the differences. The cut scenes aren’t totally necessary, but I do like and appreciate them (thankfully, my copy didn’t include the awful flashes during the mind meld scene, WTF).
- It may be inessential to the plot, but I like the Scooby Doo-esque reveal of the Klingon sniper being none other than… Odo! Plus it uses the Klingon/human blood difference as a plot device and we get to see Worf one more time.
- The early scene with Spock and Valeris is nice, establishing his relationship with this new character and foreshadowing her ambivalence about peace with the Klingons. Spock’s “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end” is such a great line and character beat. There’s too many great lines to count in the movie.
- We’ve got quite a cast here! The Federation President is indeed Kurtwood Smith. Sarek is here, as well as the diva-tastic Klingon ambassador from The Voyage Home (as well as Admiral Cartwright, now an asshole). Rand from TOS is Sulu’s comm officer. Iman, of course. And Christian Slater is an officer on the fucking Excelsior, even.
- I like the locales, especially the location shooting on the glacier. Gives it a more epic, almost Star Wars kind of feel.
- Oh, hey. Phaser alarms. Good idea, let’s never use that again. Everything about this scene is silly: the fact that Chekov doesn’t know about the alarm, the fact that Valeris decides to demonstrate it, the fact that there’s just a locker of weapons in the galley with no lock on them, the fact that these poor chefs are just ducking out of the way while she shoots up their hard work. And no apology!
- Love the makeup on this Jem’Hadar looking dude, especially his burned skin and horns.
- I didn’t notice until my rewatch (in hi-def now) that Martia’s eyes are always yellow even when she takes on other forms, including Kirk. It gives him a subtlety unsettling appearance. The “It must have been your lifelong ambition!” line slays me. Take that, Shatner.
- Nichelle Nichols objected to the scene where they have to try to speak Klingon to get through the checkpoint, asserting that Uhura should know how to speak it. She’s right of course, but Nicholas Meyer overruled her. It’s a funny scene but that backstage tidbit is unfortunate. The Uhura of the newer films would be fluent in several languages, including Klingon. I love how little of a shit these two checkpoint guys give.